I See Old People!

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. (Netflix photo)

Sometimes the things that frighten us most when we are young turn out to be the very things that save us when we are old.

I know this because when I was newly married, I was terrified that I would wake up one morning and realize that oh shit my husband didn’t really love me. I used to have nightmares where he would come to where I was eating a salad or shaving my legs, and he would say, “You know I don’t love you. I never did.” And I would wake up screaming, “Please no. Don’t say that. Noooo.”

But by the time I had been married for twenty-five or so years, I began to see that I could do very well without him, that my fear had set me up to allow myself to be taken for granted, and worse, to be emotionally and verbally abused.

In the end, I was the one who left.

Looking back, realizing that my fears were, in fact, grounded, that we really didn’t love each other enough, that he failed to love me in the way I deserved to be loved, fueled my decision to move out. Ten years later, I have to say, I want to call him up and thank him for all the times he called me names or refused to buy something I needed or threw something at me in a rage. If he had been more loving, I might still be with him, and all my energy would be suffocated out of me instead of channeled into rebuilding my Self. I’m better off.

My experience was not unique. Many women, especially in our blooming boomer days, when being married, being loved were a woman’s salvation, when her route to a credit card or even a bank account was closed off unless she had a man or was fabulously well off, accepted – settled for – less than we actually wanted because we believed we had no choice. Most of us stayed put, and many of those who left were pushed out by that long-feared, oft-dreaded blow. “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Which is the premise on which Grace and Frankie, the Netflix original series, starring Jane Fonda as Grace and Lily Tomlin as Frankie, is based. They are jilted wives set adrift by their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), only to discover that being discarded is the greatest gift either husband ever gave them.

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (photo from Netflix)

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (Netflix photo)”The men are never demonized, are heroic in their way.”

At the beginning of Season One, Robert and Sol disclose to Grace and Frankie, women who’ve entered their 70s believing they were in rock-solid marriages, that both marriages are over. For twenty of the forty years they have been together, both men, who shared a law practice and were apparently devoted to their wives and families, have been carrying on a secret love affair. It’s time, they tell the women, that they came out once and for all; they are getting married, and nothing the women can say or do will change their minds.

The women are devastated. How will they ever live without these men, who have been the center of their lives for most of their adulthood? Over the course of the initial thirteen episodes, however, they learn to adjust; in the end both realize from individual epiphanies that they were never fully themselves as married women, that each has compromised herself and has lost sight of who she was to begin with.

perfect and hippie

Too perfect, too hippiedippiedoo (Netflix)

In Season Two, Grace and Frankie have accepted the rearrangement of their lives. They have learned to like each other enough to actually enjoy sharing the beach house to which they have been summarily exiled by their ex-husbands; it is a house the men jointly bought for the two families, and in the past, the women had gone out of their way to avoid getting to know one another intimately. Grace is too body-obsessed, too protocol-conscious, too money-hungry for Frankie’s taste, and as far as Grace is concerned, Frankie is too weird, too hippiedippiedoo, too 60s-leaning addled.But lo and behold, they find that the women buried in the personae they’ve become have more in common than they ever imagined, and together they set about figuring out who they might be under the camouflage.

I do not mean to suggest that Grace and Frankie represent the majority of my sisters. Nor have I stopped believing in happy marriages; I know that those do exist, and Grace and Frankie are by no means the “normal,” which I believe there is such a thing. But I identify with them. They resonate for me in ways female characters of my own generation rarely do. They are fleshy women who transcend the caricatures of older women we are usually presented with: dotty bats or bitchy, lonely success icons. Except that they are too rich and live a life too rife with options, they are real. . . and flawed.

Grace and Frankie are damaged goods. Grace can’t get through a day without excessive amounts of alcohol, and she rarely eats, slavishly catering to her nearly anorexic body, protecting the copious dollars she has expended in preserving her looks. Frankie needs mind alteration and seeks it out in peyote, in ganja, in muscle relaxers; she calls herself an artist but has been unfaithful to her art and has hidden herself in new age homilies and soporifics. Each of them experiences a crisis that leads to a shared epiphany: Frankie’s religious beliefs and spirituality are tested by the dying wish of an old friend, and Grace’s are challenged by the booze and a near affair with an old, still-married flame (Sam Eliot).

Grace and Frankie at the beach

Grace and Frankie at the beach (Netflix)

At the end of the second season, both women are forced to come to terms with the need to take hold of their lives, when Robert and Sol present yet another fâit-accomplit – they have put the house they have been living in on the market and are planning to move out. The house, which was where Robert and Grace raised their daughters, went to Robert in the divorce settlement, but the announcement that the men are divesting themselves of this vestige of their old lives sets off a firestorm of revelations.

Sol, seeking to clear his tortured conscience before he moves into the next phase of his new life, tells Frankie he fabricated a story of how, when they were very young, he had sold a piece of her art work off the wall of his law office to a famous client. The story has been Frankie’s life raft of self-confidence. She is devastated, protesting, “It’s the one thing that proved to me that I was really an artist!”

A few moments later, Robert gives Grace a carton filled with “thoughtfully” prepared gift boxes, each containing a pre-wrapped item of jewelry, pre-staged with an anticipatory card attached.

There’s a gold necklace: “Sorry you had a bad day.”

And a diamond bracelet: “To Grace. Thinking of you with love. Robert”

An emerald ring. “Happy anniversary to Grace from Robert with love.”

Another and another, each signed “Love, Robert.”

“Seriously?” Grace bellows. “They’re not personal. . . . It’s like a jar of treats for a dog. . . . . “ She stops, lost for words.

“I used to think,” she goes on, fighting the tears, “how nice! Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad. Or . . . Robert got me something special because he knew I was right, and he was wrong. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t for me at all. It was for you, so you wouldn’t have to deal with me. So you didn’t even have to think about me. . . . We’d have a fight, and you’d give me a gift from your stash. I used to think you gave me gifts because, I don’t know, you weren’t a talker. But it was to keep me quiet, hunh? To manage me. To handle me. Never, not once was it because you loved me.

“I never understood our marriage until right now.”

All at once, with just the subtlest shift of her body and a gentle sigh, Grace is grateful that her marriage is over. To learn, a year after the divorce, that your husband never really loved you is the worst lie to own up to because it’s a lie you had to be telling yourself or it never would have flown.

Frankie, too, must come to terms with the great lie between her and Sol. She has built her trust on Sol, based on his assertion that he sold her painting so easily because he and the client were so impressed with the art. He thinks he did her a favor.

“I believed in you and wanted you to believe in you too,” he says. He’s sincere. Which makes it all the worse.

Because it is so entirely dismissive. He has robbed her of respect, has failed to trust that she could own her own need to develop her art; he perceived her to be such a child that he needed to candy coat a truth that might have engendered her professional growth.

Grace agrees and accuses Sol of belittling Frankie.

“I was not belittling her,” Sol declares. “I was not dismissing her. . . .”

“Oh really,” Frankie rejoins, “Because ‘her’ is still in the room, and it feels a little dismissive to ‘her’.”

Too pervasively, we women – especially women of the baby boom generation – are programmed to accept men’s condescension, to feel flattered when they humor us, when they patronize us, when they throw us bones. We all have learned to call ourselves happy when our men acquiesce to allowing us to live, even as we stifled our own breath.

Grace and Frankie cogently captures that dynamic, the underlying and agitating essence of what taints too many marriages. It makes the show a continual revelation, a source of satisfying binge watching for this older woman, who hardly expected to see herself represented on the small screen.

Grace and Frankie is not perfect. Although I’m grateful that the show doesn’t pander to the view of older women as finished products, I wish there were less emphasis on the women’s quest to find the right man. They are so much more complete when they don’t kowtow to the opposite sex. But the men they are interested in are far more interesting than the men who have thrown them to the curb, so there is a relief in that.

I also wish that the women’s substance abuse were a subject for more serious investigation. Perhaps it will be in Season 3, when they embark on their next adventure together. I don’t want to see them continue to get in their own way, to stifle their own ability to make themselves happy.

But it is refreshing that neither woman is willing to put up with the stream of put-downs we usually hear in sitcoms; nor is either reduced to silly one-liners that put their men in their places. This is no Everybody Loves Raymond battle of the sexes. It’s rich, convoluted, frustrating, confusing, terrifying, exhilarating real life.

And the men are never demonized. They are easily loveable, even heroic in their own way – after all they have come out to family, friends, colleagues, the world, and have married after 70. That’s courageous. Both former couples are fully fleshed characters, and the actors play them with remarkable aplomb. In a way, because they have clearly found a perfect niche, Sam Waterston steals the show from Sheen, as Jane Fonda does from Tomlin. Still, Tomlin and Sheen are wonderful; this is a full complement of entirely credible actors deftly playing deeply human roles.

I called this a sitcom. That’s not accurate. I guess one would call it a dramedy. I warn you, I cry at least twice in each episode. The stories cut close to the soul, and they can wring emotion I forgot I felt.

I do laugh. But mostly when it hurts.G & Frankie like each other

 

I Got a Kick . . . At the Opera!

As a rule, I am not a big fan of musical theater. I want my mind engaged when I go to the theater, and the familiar tropes and clichés of most musicals work better than personal ohms to make me drift into mindlessness. There are exceptions to my taste aversion, the stellar standouts, which include anything by Stephen Sondheim, Rent, Roar of the Greasepaint, HAMILTON and a few others. But even as a director of educational theater, who helmed at least two musicals a year, I was hard to please.

Which is why I most often chose very difficult musicals for my students to perform – the very operatic Most Happy Fella and Sondheim’s dark and cynical Sweeney Todd, for example. I am a very tough customer. And I am not likely to trust local regional theater, wherever I might be.

Which is curious, considering that I lived for many years in the New Haven, CT, area, and I had access to some of America’s best regional theaters. I trusted Long Wharf Theatre, Hartford Stage, and Yale Repertory, whose productions I attended religiously. But except for one musical at Long Wharf that I rather liked (about an English teacher), I tended to head to New York when I wanted to check out a play for my kids or to see what was new in the musicals canon.

And that is how I failed to discover the Goodspeed Opera House.

Well, that is not exactly accurate. I knew about the Goodspeed.  I  had even been to the building and had walked the premises. But  I had never gone inside, had never seen a production.

Until last week.

My good friend and colleague Denise Lute was featured as the batty Mrs. Harcourt in Anything Goes, and I decided it was time to take the leap, convincing my best buddy to drive with me from New York to Haddam. Well, blow Gabriel, blow and ain’t it de-lovely! If Anything Goes is an example of what’s been going on out there at the Goodspeed, then I have been a fool. Thank goodness I have lived long enough to get past my prejudices and enjoy this epiphany.

Anything Goes was absolute perfection, from start to finish, a joy to behold and a revelation of phenomenal talent.

Which, as Denise pointed out over dinner, should not be a surprise. After all, everyone in the cast has a host of impressive credits. “My Kingsley (Kingsley Leggs, who plays Eli J. Whitney, Mrs. Harcourt’s boyfriend)”, she averred, “was in Color Purple, Sister Act, etc., David (Harris, who plays the romantic lead) is a hot (and I mean HOT) star in Australia, and Rashidra (Scott), well, she’s here because Beautiful let her take a leave of absence. She’s got a feature role in that one!”  High praise coming from Denise Lute, who works more than most actors I know, a veteran of the Actors’ Studio. Still, I would not have been so easily convinced. Anyone can make a resume sound far more impressive than it is.

Rashidra

Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney in Goodspeed Opera’s Anything Goes (photo courtesy of CT Post).

But the cast gels in ensemble synchronicity from the stimulating opener to the rousing finish. Rashidra Scott is in almost every scene and leads the ensemble in dancing that runs the gambit from tap to jazz to ballet to salsa with her fleet feet dancing in perfect alignment with her megavoice. She really stands out.

Because she practically carries the show. But honestly, there’s not a bad apple in this crate. Every single person in the cast sings, dances, acts. Even Trixie, the dog Denise’s character carries compulsively through most of the play, is remarkable, so mellow she could have convincingly played a stuffed animal.

Denise and Trixie

Cheeky (Trixie the Pomeranian) in the arms of Mrs. Harcourt (Denise Lute). Photo by Tim Cook/The Day

I would have preferred less mugging and ad-libbing by Stephen DeRosa, who plays Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #2, but that’s because I’m a writer (script sacrosanctity!) and a former acting teacher (be generous, babies; don’t steal the light); the crowd there loved him, and so he mugged harder and ad-libbed all the more vigorously.

To tell the truth, if I were to say to one person in the show “You’re the top,” it would be to choreographer Kelli Barclay. I haven’t seen dancing like this anywhere. The dance in this show was more than just a fun interlude. In many cases, the dance captured pieces of story that were not clearly elucidated or they underscored a subtext the audience could easily have missed. The book is simplicity itself, with no intricate story lines, no metaphorical messages to darken or clutter the story, but the characters might come off as stick figures or cartoons were it not for the choreography. Barclay’s choreography endows Reno Sweeny and Billy Crocker, and even Moonface Martin with a humanity that is not in the script, is not clear in the music.

One of the difficulties of a show like Anything Goes is that the vacuity of story and absence of characterization can leave the audience a bit numb. Even while they are having fun, they might be inclined to turn off a bit, to withhold investment in the people the actors are playing. Barclay’s dances ensure that the audience cares about all of them, even about the ensemble characters we hardly know at all.

Director Daniel Goldstein can take credit for opening a world and for making sure that all the elements of the production are of that world. The design of the set by Wilson Chin is simple but elegant, very old-school theatrical, with small revolves, wagons and flies providing a variety of sub-sets. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi are adorable, respectful of the bodies they adorn and time-period-appropriate, in colors that enhance the set design. Lights, by Brian Tovar are unnoticeable and flawless, but sound was slightly lacking, as there were whole chunks of dialogue that were inaudible or indiscernible where I was sitting in the front left orchestra.

Best of all, what Goldstein has achieved, what directors hope for and too often miss, is a cast and crew that loves being together, loves making this show, loves Cole Porter, loves everything about being in Haddam on the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House. That’s remarkable. It’s hard to pull off a show that’s based on the music of a beloved song writer and refrain from making it more than it is or less than it can be. An American in Paris on Broadway very graphically proved that to me. No one had any fun in that show, at least on the day I saw it. And the writers and director, in adding tried dark drama to the simple storyline, muddied the waters and detracted from the beauty of the music. The actors were great ballet dancers but could not act, and the dancing told no story. The play was merely an exhibition, a total disappointment. And the antithesis of Anything Goes.

Which taught me a valuable lesson. I must lose all NYC snobbery. Theater in the boondocks –like it or not, folks, the Goodspeed Opera House is in the idyllic boondocks, on the banks of the CT River – can be well worth the requisite battle to reach it through horrific Connecticut (worst in summertime) traffic.

goodspeed

It’s too late to see this production of Anything Goes, which closed  June 16. But there will be other productions – check them out here. And be sure to watch for work by people like Rashidra Scott, Denise Lute, Daniel Goldstein, and Kelli Barclay.

Himself and Nora, an off-Broadway show about James and Nora Joyce, about which I was skeptical about until I realized it features Barclay’s choreography, sounds like a great prospect. There’s lots of subtext in that marriage to elucidate through dance. My guess is that it can’t miss.

 

 

At Best A Tepid Tempest in the Park (Reprinted by permission of Catch & Release, the Columbia Journal Online

It is downright unpatriotic to be a New Yorker and walk out on a performance at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in the middle of A Shakespeare in the Park production. But that’s just what I did. After I stood in the sun for two hours waiting to be handed two free tickets, I looked the city’s gift horse in the mouth by throwing my hands at mid-show and walking – no, running – away. It felt blasphemous. It felt treacherous. It felt good.

The air was cold, the seats were hard, the show stank, and after forty years of attending what Shakespeare in the Park I was lucky enough to get tickets for, I felt like I had earned the right to stalk away in an exasperated huff. Especially since the Public apparently feels like it has earned the right to present so unimpressive a production as this one.

The critics have been generous with the show.  While they have found some fault, overall, they are loathe to come down hard on it, and this perplexes me. Having spent much of my life studying theater and acting, directing student productions, reading copious amounts of criticism and history, taking a dramaturgy practicum at Columbia, I know that even if some people disagree with my assessment, I cannot possibly be alone. If any other production with such a high profile failed so miserably as this one, the critics would be screaming their displeasure at the city. But The Public Theater’s annual Delacorte starfest is a sacred institution, dependent on donations and sponsorships, and no one wants to be the little boy pointing brazenly at the emperor’s nudity.

Which is too bad. Because good criticism should make the program grow stronger; in a perfect world, sponsors and patrons would want to invest more money in the idea that making really good theater requires making some really terrible mistakes. That to suggest that something is not as good as it should be is to encourage it to reach its own potential.

Why, then,  does my feeling of treachery persist when I say that the production was flat, that it created no magic and no island, that it had no sorcerer of any kind performing miracles in a play that, at its best, is one miracle after another?

There was a time when I attended the shows at the Delacorte knowing that I would see great acting, thoughtful design, coherent directing. In this production of The Tempest, the directing is unfocused, and the actors get away with blunders that would not be tolerated in the remotest hinterland productions. Once upon a time, actors donated their time and in return found grateful fans, who followed their careers. This show featured an actor who was cast despite the fact that he is absolutely wrong for the part simply because he is a beloved New York icon.

Audiences come to the shows to see faces they recognize from elsewhere. The star-studded Shakespeare in the Park productions have turned into the kind of stuff tourists’ dreams are made on, just like the mini Chocolate theme park called the M & M experience that draws out-of-towners off the tour buses at midtown. So casting is not always as thoughtfully executed as it should be.

I knew better from the start.  I should have eschewed this production of The Tempest altogether.  I was aware of this beforehand and was reminded while waiting on the line at the designated 135th Street spot for ticket distribution when one of the Public Theater pages came out to tout the show. He announced with great pride that Prospero would be “played by Sam Waterston, whom you all know from his amazing work as Jack McCoy on Law and Order.” I groaned. I did not want to see Jack McCoy as Prospero.

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Sam Waterston, as Prospero, and Francesca Carpanini, as Miranda, in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest. (photo ©Joan Marcus, NY Daily News)

Let me digress here and say that I admire Sam Waterston’s work enormously. In Grace and Frankie, where his conflicted, ambivalent Saul is the soul of the ensemble, he is the reason I watched every episode despite the fact that the other cast members failed to convince me they were who or what they purported to be. I was enthralled by his work in The Killing Fields and always wanted more from him when I watched Law and Order. But when I traveled to New Haven to see Stoppard’s Travesties, which featured Waterston, I was sorely disappointed. Waterston’s mumbly, hesitant speech patterns didn’t capture the rhythm of Stoppard’s writing. The play was uneven, and the speeches tended to be long and ponderous, even for Stoppard, and Waterston was not nailing them. Spoken with aplomb, Stoppard’s speeches, even at their wordiest, are melodious and lyrical, downright Shakespearean. Waterston’s delivery made them seem clunky, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual. So why did I even bother to get tickets for a Shakespeare play in which he would play a character with some of the longest, most ponderous speeches in the canon?

Two reasons. Because I could. And because I should. Who would turn down an opportunity see a free production of one of Shakespeare’s best plays, directed by Michael Greif, a Tony winner, one of Broadway’s best directors? Who would not want to witness a spectacle produced by a Broadway-caliber production team? Well, I was wrong in thinking I did.

Mediocrity is, apparently, the measure of excellence in a Delacorte show.

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Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Trinculo in The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, now playing at the Delacorte Theater (photo © Sara Krulwich, NY Times)

The highlight of the evening at my Delacorte was Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Trinculo scene opposite Danny Mastrogorgio as Stephano and Louis Cancelmi as Caliban. Ferguson was good. He played Trinculo exactly as he plays his character on Modern Family, vascillating between over-the-top-reactions to things and understated asides. Stephano was okay. At least he was almost understandable. But Caliban seemed confused by the character he was playing, could not choose which of several accents to rely on, had no inkling as to how his body should move, and it was nearly impossible to catch his words, which were not falling trippingly from his tongue. The scene is pure Commedia fun as written; there is little any production could do to ruin it, but if the words were more critical, even that scene would have been lost.

No one in the cast, with the exception of Cotter Smith in the part of Prospero’s brother Antonio, was able to speak the speech. Waterston spoke as though he had pebbles on his tongue, and half his mouth was sewn together. Ariel might have been articulating just fine, but since he was whispering much of the time, nothing was reaching my ears. Miranda shouted everything. There were no nuances of emotions from her, just ebullient shouting to accompany her juvenile physicality. She seemed more like an over-excited six-year-old than a young woman encountering sexual awakening, and watching her I was reminded of a classmate of my daughter’s in her performing arts magnet high school, who had been Annie on Broadway and played every part, even scenes of quiet contemplation, with the same musical comedy hugeness.  As a high school theater director, I held my neophyte teenage actors in our several productions of plays by the Bard to a far higher standard than any of these credentialed professionals seemed to reach for.

It is worthless to go on about the acting. It was just the tip of the iceberg. The opening scene, the tempest itself, was lovely. I am a great fan of theatrical minimalism, of letting the actors carry the “sell” of a set, and in the opening, it all worked well. But as soon as the initial storm died, so did the success of the staging, the appropriateness of the design, the creation of the world. There was nothing to make me believe that I was encountering characters cast adrift on a seemingly hostile, enchanted island; they were simply pretenders stomping through roles on a stagnant playground in the center of a stage at the Delacorte Theatre.

Given how lacking I found the show, I can’t help wondering why I am already planning to seek tickets to Cymbelline, a play that is rarely done well?   The answer is plain, really. Because I’m New Yorker. It’s my patriotic duty.

 

 

Bob Ziering: Portrait of the Artist as an Old(er) Man (republished by permission of Catch & Release, The Columbia Journal Online)

Bob P'town “There aren’t a lot of restaurants like this one left in town,” Bob Ziering says, leaning over his lunch.   A glint appears in his eye as he quips in a spot-on Eastern European/Yiddish accent, “So, you think maybe we gonna eat?”  Of course I laugh.  This is how Bobby dispels his basic disdain for talking about himself, and I have asked him some very personal questions about his life and his art.  Whenever he wants to deflect his reluctance to talk, he slips into one of a hundred accents. He has chosen to meet in the Piccolo Café, an intimate little Italian restaurant on the upper west side, where Bobby has lived since the early ‘60’s.  Like Bobby, who was born in 1932, the Piccolo, established in Italy in 1938, has at once an old school charm and a hip vivacity. Piccolo might look like a little, old café, but there’s a robust energy here, and it’s a good foil for Bobby, who looks like he might be getting on in years until he starts to talk – or sing or paint – and you realize he’s younger than any of the hip upper west siders who frequent the Piccolo. I met Bob not long after he moved to this community.  He was, in those days, as he remains today in a more mature way, remarkably handsome, extraordinarily entertaining, unerringly funny. My Uncle Fred, a loud, opinionated Genovese, introduced us at one of the weekly open houses he and my aunt hosted, where copious amounts of delectable food preceded equal servings of delicious music played live or selected from his extensive record collection.  Fred had met Bob through a gay friend, and he loved to point out to us that while he was definitely not attracted to men, if he were, Bobby would be the only man he could ever love. Even then, I understood why. According to Uncle Fred, Bobby sang like Caruso or Bjørling, painted like Rembrandt or Caravaggio and did imitations like Rich Little.  Well, in those days they were imitations like Rich Little; today he does imitations more like a geriatric Jimmy Fallon. In any case, Uncle Fred knew whereof he spoke. “He’s a true Renaissance Man,” Fred would declare in a rasping voice that no one could mimic as well as Bob Ziering.  “A monster talent.” “I’m 80 years old,” Bobby says now.  “I’ve had a great career as an illustrator, I’ve traveled and sung in some wonderful operas.  But no one knows who I really am.  I am working to re-invent myself, and I want to be noticed. I’m still working, still creating, and you’re never too old be discovered.  I just want to be seen!” In truth, Bob has been noticed.  Is still being noticed.  He had a long and storied career as an illustrator, his works featured in advertisements, on book jackets, on posters at the Metropolitan Opera, in The New York Times, all over the place.  And all the while he was working – freelancing –he took time to represent other artists, to study music and voice and sing in the (now defunct) Amato Opera Company, among others. Along the way, he found time to establish himself as a collector: Bob Ziering owns an impressive array of African tribal art, Enrico Caruso memorabilia, classical opera recordings.  Just as impressive is that as busy as Bobby has been, he has never been too busy for friendship, and he has managed to create lifelong friendships that attest to the depth of the man’s humanness.  Ziering is a man who simply commands attention and is anything but obscure. It is true that he has not been very masterful at self-promotion.   “I want to be reborn, “ he says with a laugh; “but I am easily distracted by my many fascinating projects.” The Kiss This is a man who, above all else, communes with the world through his work, and his work is his first love.  He has, in recent years, produced a major body of work, and the subjects are as diverse as the wonders that stimulate Ziering’s imagination. Nowadays, Bob’s work is colorful, expansive; it succeeds the elegantly drawn illustrations that provided Bob with a comfortable income for many years.  At their best,  the illustrations are tributes to Ziering’s profound observations, his remarkable insights, his ability to capture the essence of an idea or a character in the simple but dynamic assembly of lines drawn with pen and ink, and they are reminders of his salient influencers, the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Francis Bacon, J.M.W.Turner.  Ziering’s illustrations caught figures in motion and projected whole stories in single images.  http://www.illustrationsource.com/stock/artist/bob-ziering// Bed But the newer work, the work of the past twenty years since he left illustrating, comprise the body of achievement Bob is proudest of.   In the new art, he is able to explore his emotions – universal human emotions – by telling visual tales, which he finds in his fellow humans, in animals, in burned piers and discarded chairs alike. “This woik you should see, dahling,” he whispers slyly, channeling his inner yenta.  “The woik everyone should see.” Silverback Ziering is a serious artist, interested in very serious subjects.  In the 1990’s, during a time of great personal loss, Bob was drawn to the plight of the Mountain Gorilla.  He became obsessed with the idea that mankind would soon render these magnificent beasts extinct. My Future Is In Your Hands In an interview with Nicholas Polities, of Print Magazine, Ziering explained, “The deep feeling of hurt I experienced seemed to fire my passion for expressing loss in terms of the species. . . . Without losing focus on the plight of the gorillas, I was also using it as a metaphor for universal themes of loss, cruelty, inhumanity, and death.”  He spent fifteen years researching, examining, compiling samples from gorilla life, from the foods they ingested and the environments they inhabited to the layering of their skin and the color of their eyes.  He worked to depict them as the complex organisms they are, to dispel the stereotype of the angry, beastly gorilla loner and to show what gentle, social animals they really are.  But he did not flinch from also honestly illustrating moments of aggression and retaliation. Reaching The series is a remarkable body of work and had exhibitions at the Marywood University Art Gallery in Scranton, PA, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.  As the Marywood catalog described, the “skillfully rendered images of the majestic and imperiled Mountain Gorilla underscore their endangerment. . . . The artwork is descriptive, suggestive and bold. . .showing subjects that have a poignant familiarity.” So Close The waiter in the Piccolo brings us our soy caffe ‘l ‘attes, and Bob cannot resist the urge to slip back into his accented alter ego.  “You gonna write about my sexy stuff?”  I laugh.  Discussion of some of his newer work still make him the slightest bit uncomfortable. As a child of the pre-boomer generation, Bob Ziering has came late to an acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and he had to learn to accept himself as a gay man, a journey he has given beautifully textured life in his artistically erotic chalk drawings of people on the verge of lovemaking, figures in intimate repose, etc., which have been frequently exhibited by the Leslie Lohman Gallery; three pages Ziering’s work are permanently on display on their website (http://www.leslielohman.org/).   The work is deeply affecting, but it never verges on pornography.   Rather, in the tradition of the great masters, Bob conveys a life seething with sensual stimulation that insinuates sexuality and tantalizes without exploitive titillation. Bob draws his face into a kind of exaggerated squint.  “You look too serious.  Vot’s so serious? “  I tell him that I am just concentrating on hearing the details, understanding how he himself perceives his work, and I am probably responding to the expression on his own face.  “Ya,” he quips now in a mock Dutch accent.  “The face tells all.” It was Rembrandt’s face that inspired another recent series.  Fascinated by the variety of countenances, the unabashed aging in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Ziering created a series called Rembrandt’s Face, his own interpretations of the artist’s interpretations of self.  It’s a startlingly revealing series, one that illuminates both Bob and his subject in surprising ways.  When I spoke earlier to Miki Marcu, an old friend of Ziering’s, about his work, and she chose the Rembrandt series as one she especially adored. “He decided on REMBRANDT?” She exclaimed.  “What a jump.  What a facility he has as an artist.” Rembrandt Not content to express himself through the animate realm, Bob has looked to what other artists would call still life for two other major series: The Burnt Pier, which studies the thrumming vitality of an abandoned pier on the Hudson near Bob’s UWS home, and the Blue Chair, in which a discarded wicker-back chair veritably dances, reverberating with color and motion. Burning Pier Bob lapses into seriousness when he talks about the medium in which he works.  “I think the biggest thing I have done as an artist since I left the illustration racket is that I am working in color.  I deliberately sought to transition into color, but I wasn’t comfortable working with a paintbrush.   Then Alan gave me a set of pastels one year, and I have found that they have freed all my spirits, which gave me the momentum I needed to really immerse myself into the life of my art. “ Pink Mist Alan is Alan Lawson, a fellow artist, who has been with Ziering in a steadfast, ever-evolving friendship for thirty-three years.  “Early on, he showed me a copy of Vermeer’s Lady with the Red Hat he had done in pastels, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen . . . .  He had done it when he was still a kid of maybe 17 . . . . He had not touched pastels since then.  I thought to myself that this was the medium that could bridge his transition from being a draw-er to becoming a painter.  So for Christmas one year I gave him a box of pastels, and what he can do with those pastels is just beyond description.  He finds layers of color, dynamism of scenes that I’ve rarely seen done in any medium.” Sitting in the restaurant, Bob sighs.  “I expected to do so much with that work.” “You’re still working,” I protest. “But nothing has changed.  The gorilla  — along with so many animals! — grows closer to extinction every day, and . . . .” His voice trails off, and he sighs,  “There is so much more to do.  I may do things a little more slowly than I used to, but I can still do so much!” Bob at Twighlight Everyone who knows Bob says it is, above all, passion that defines the man, and it is passion that drives the artist, keeps him young. Lawson, a painter and scenic charge for both film and theater, came to NY to attend school in 1979 and took a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he met Ziering in 1981.  He says that it’s always been hard to keep up with the older man.  “When I met him, I was just in my second year at Pratt, and here he was this seasoned native New Yorker, so knowledgeable, so passionate.  He was passionate about everything.   Talk to him about his tribal art collection, his record collection, his own work, and so many things . . . things that I had never heard of.   He introduced me to so much. . . . .And I have to say, his passion today is the same as it was thirty-three years ago.   His passions run very deep, they’re very strong, and he has an amazing vitality.  Boundless.” Ziering credits his happy Brooklyn childhood for his zest for life. Lapsing into Yiddish tones again, he tells me he was an aesthetically astute child, who loved the Friday night family food extravaganzas at his father’s parents’ home, in the company of all his exuberantly musical and artistic relatives, the first generation born in New York City, USA.   He had a great voice, and he loved to sing, but even then he knew he would be a visual artist.  “My mother told me she believed I was already drawing in the womb, that she felt movement that was more akin to the scratching of a pen than the kicking most babies inflict on their mothers.”    She felt compelled from the very start to introduce him to the cornucopia of visual art available to anyone growing up in Brooklyn, and he cherished the time he spent with her visiting museums and galleries, his favorite destinations. “You’d think I’d wanna go to Ebbets Field or play stick ball,” Ziering laughs. “I was a lousy baseball player . . . but wonderful gallery goer, at a very early age!”  His parents and his friends alike admired his talent, and he was fueled by their respect.  Yet his love for the work was always his strongest motivating force.  “I couldn’t wait,” he says; “to get to my studio in the finished basement, back to my drawing and painting.” “I enjoyed being with the other kids, but I loved being with adults, and I loved to show off.  The other kids didn’t seem to mind.  They knew I would play for a finite amount of time, and then I would retreat to my work.” Joyce Hellman, a classmate of Bob’s in the High School of Music and Art, Class of 1950, remembers Bob as a warm, loving, gifted but extraordinarily disciplined teenager.  “I was  music major, so we didn’t become close, “ she says, “Till years and years after graduation, after our 35th reunion, but everyone knew who Bob was.  We knew he could sing – oh, how he could sing – and we knew he could dance, but we also knew he loved to work.  Couldn’t seem to get enough of it.” Lawson concurs.  “Bob’s one true love is his art.  He has the good fortune of having his studio right next to his bedroom, so he can get up in the morning and be right at the heart of where he needs to be to do his work.   But you know, that takes a lot of discipline.  I’ve had it both ways, had a studio in my home and a studio away, and each presents a different scenario.  I mean, to get up every day and to face first thing what you did the day before can be challenging.  You’re with it 24/7.   Then too, it can be too easy.  Sometimes people need the effort of getting to somewhere to make them work.  That’s not Bob.  He’s an incredibly disciplined person.“ I ask Bob if he thinks he has this drive, the kind that sets the artist apart from the dabbler.   “Yes,” he asserts.   “First thing, every day, I go for a little walk, get my coffee and a croissant, and then, after I go to the JCC to swim or lift weights, I return and work till the light dims in my studio.  Then it’s music and friends and books and all the wonderful things there are to experience.  But first there’s the art. ” Face Me Miki Marcu, who met him when she was the director of the Merton D. Simpson Gallery of African Art in Chelsea, where Bob was a client, says that it’s exactly his relationship to his work what makes Bob Ziering different even from the other artists she has known.  “He’s a funny man. . . a very loving friend, has seen me through some truly tough times,  and he loves all kinds of music and art.  But I always know that he is committed entirely to his art.” “Working every day is how Bob stays balanced on the beam,” says Lawson.  “Life can be a narrow path, and you can find yourself losing your footing.  Having that discipline, that drive to stand in front of that board is what keeps him balanced.. . . . “  Lawson tells me that Bob’s favorite work shirt is one he bought at the Dia  Art Foundation, in Beacon, NY, designed by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a sculptor whose work Bob greatly admires.  The t-shirt proclaims, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.”  “I think he wears that,” Lawson goes on, “because  it speaks so profoundly to the truth of his own life.” In A Child's Garden And Sky Bob’s studio was probably the master bedroom of his spacious, rent-controlled apartment, and he is an eager host who never tires of showing off his works in progress that hang on his work board or his past oeuvres, stashed neatly in his art drawers.   On shelves, in albums and books, he keeps more of his work, carefully cataloged, meticulously arranged so he can easily find anything he wants to share.  The newest series is startling.  Youthful exuberance, naiveté, shyness captured in portraits of several models, most notably  “K” the personal trainer at his gym, a kind of surrogate for the young man Ziering was himself at 23. (K) 1 The series is called Aloneness, and through the work, Bob explores the dimensions of being alone.  “Understand, I am not talking about loneliness.” Bob says as he shows me a particularly engaging picture – the young man, alone, covering his face with his hands, posing but not comfortable posing, knowing he is semi-nude and being watched.    “It’s very different.  Sometimes it’s thrust upon us, but more often we choose it.”  This is his most personal series to date. (K) 2 By his own accounting, Bob’s best companion is his art, but he says he craves human relationships.  So his relationship to aloneness is dynamic, morphing as he discovers new dimensions in himself and in his environment.  He spends most of his time away from human contact, rubbing chalk on a paper hung on his board, drawing a story he is compelled to tell.  He works from photographs he takes of his subjects and his models, and he breathes his own life into them, interpreting their skin, their expressions, their breath.   “Listen,” says Lawson, “Bob and I have been together for a very long time, and we have been through every kind of relationship experience two people can have.  I know him well, and I wouldn’t say he’s exactly a loner.  He can have periods of isolation, but I can’t say I have ever known him to be lonely, and he seeks others out.  He lives alone, is self-sufficient . . . It’s very true that he stands alone in his studio when he is working, but his dialogue with his subjects is so strong that one can imagine him having a conversation  with the image, whether it’s of beautiful bodies in bed or a gorilla or a chair or an aging Rembrandt or even a burnt pier being washed over by the incessant sea.  And that’s what makes the work so resonant.  You feel the dialogue between the artist and the subject.” Bob at Twilight II In Ziering’s life, Lawson reminds me, he has had three very deep, very long-term relationships.  His communion with Alan, which began and remained for many years a romantic partnership, has transcended the many ways both their lives have changed. In the new series, relationships are at the core of the vivacity that defines them.  There is distinct dialogue in every piece Ziering creates, and it is clear and ambient.  The work is exuberant, joyful, celebrating the human just being.  The joy the artist clearly derives from the engagement points to a very important difference between aloneness and loneliness.  As Alan Lawson explains, “People who have been alone for a long time and feel lonely reach a certain level of bitterness.  That’s not Bob.  All you have to do is be with Bob, walk out the door with him, see him looking with interest at EVERYthing, and you realize he is not that kind of a person.  His receptors are always up, and he allows the world in.  With open arms.” I can see that here in Piccolo Café, where the waiters treat him like a beloved brother, and where he nestles comfortably into his familiar seat at a booth in the back of the restaurant.  “I want to be known, to be loved, but mostly I want to keep on working!” Which he will undoubtedly do for years to come, descended as he is from a long line of nonagenarians.  Like my Uncle Fred, his fans adore him, and they hope his best work is yet to be “discovered.” “He’s brilliant,” effuses Miki Marcu.  “A truly modern Renaissance man.” Burning Piervisit  www.bobziering.com

 

Memory in the Museum*

* re-printed by permission of the Columbia: a journal of literature and art, where it appears on the Blog Site

                                                                                 In the room the women come and go
                                                                        Talking of Michelangelo . . . .
                                                                                                      T.S. Eliot. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

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Museum Hours
recalled an epiphany I experienced on my way to my wedding.

Sauntering from my apartment on Riverside Drive to the chapel at Columbia, seeking to memorize the details of my last moments of freedom, I made a special point of looking into the faces of the people I passed. I had only recently graduated from adolescence into my 20’s, and like most of my cohorts, I saw myself as the center of life and substance in the universe. But, of course, my being on the threshold of a seismic life change was of no consequence to anyone around me. And what surprised me when no one returned my gaze – hardly a soul so much as noted my existence – was that I was not disturbed at how non-noteworthy I was. It felt right. I suddenly saw with utter clarity that my story was just one among all the stories bustling about. Our lives mingled with one another like the aromas of automobiles, coffee, cigarettes, bacon, garbage and spring flowers wafting in the breeze; while each possessed a singular uniqueness, all blended smoothly into a single May morning landscape.

Museum Hours meanders thus, like a leisurely walk across campus or a thoughtful mosey through a gallery. It lingers, at both expected and unexpected intervals, to examine the layers of imagery, the texturing of impressions that create the large and small occurrences that memory accumulates, and it moves from moment to moment without ceremony, shifting from one to the next without releasing the one that came before. The film sees life as both revelatory and mundane in the same instant. And the conversations, colors, music, ambient sounds, sights and smells create a kind of cacophony that conspires both to obscure the individual components and to illuminate the distinct strengths each brings to the choir.1157496_Museum_Hours

The film is a pentimento similar to a masterwork by Peter Breughel the Elder. Breughel’s work is a kind of template for the film. The 16th Century Dutch master’s particular affinity for creating multiple strata of scenarios in every frame, for securing both the key to the broad spectrum of the painting and the insight on each particular picture by way of details illuminated in color and light, resonates here. Like Breughel, Jem Cohen, provides a wide view of life and then through the magic of his medium, which has the added benefit of sound and movement, he hones in on myriad points of view.

Like the central characters in Breughel’s work, the two apparent protagonists of Cohen’s film serve as foils for the many players that swirl about them in the museum, in the hospital, on the streets, in the local pub, and their stories irradiate innumerable others. Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) has been summoned to Vienna to attend the deathwatch of a cousin she grew up with but from whom she has long been separated. She wanders into the Historisches Kunstmuseum and meets Johann (Bobby Somer), a guard there. She asks him for directions and confides her predicament to him; he offers to be her guide and interpreter. Over the course of the movie, they forge a deep friendship, reveal details of their personal lives and provide succor and comfort for one another. For each, the other is a mirror in which a hitherto unseen self appears.

Anne is a babbler. She talks in stream of consciousness at times, the way people do who have lived alone but have much to say. Johann, by contrast, is measured in his speech, not exactly guarded but less apt to simply offer what Anne identifies as her penchant for “too much information”. He never overtly hides anything, but when he discloses, he does so quietly, matter-of-factly. Anne asks Johann if he has friends or family who, like her cousin, have been far away so that “you don’t really know where they are anymore”; he answers that actually he has no one left to keep track of. His parents, a sister, and a partner – “he’s long since been gone”– are all dead. Johann shows Anne his favorite paintings and sculpture, and she reacts. “They don’t even look nude. They look proud. Like they’re not even ashamed. . . . I had a boyfriend, and I was so guilty about sexuality. Oh! This is too much information again!” He smiles, enjoying the discourse, feeling a wholeness he’s been missing. “ I had had my share of noise . . . and now I was enjoying my quiet . . . . Then I realized how much time I had been spending at home, by myself. . . . I had forgotten how much I loved Vienna. I liked seeing the city again, showing her my city.”
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Together, Johann and Anne explore the tourists’ Vienna, but since, as Johann points out, “everything must be inexpensive,” they spend just as much time in obscure parks and in his favorite cafe, watching birds congregate on wires, townspeople relax over dinner, or old men make faces that resemble the museum’s Roman statuary. On their last day together, they walk to the hills overlooking the city in search of a congregation of starlings expected to take flight in unison, but when they arrive, they find no birds and wonder if the birds have already flown. They walk for a bit, then wait and watch while the camera rests on the sweeping view of grass. Eventually, the two stroll across the frame and disappear from sight while the camera continues to wait. The grass undulates, a cloud whispers slightly to the right, and just when you think you have see all you can possibly see, a new figure walks onto the path, and you realize that there are trees there that you hadn’t noticed before. But before you can truly examine the new dimensions, the camera releases you from that image and goes to black though you are still listening to the sound of the man’s feet crossing the grassy plain. In the darkness, you don’t remember Johann, Anne or the stranger so much as specks of color on a grayish canvas, errant birds, trees and cloudy skies.

Like Johann and Anne, we who watch the film will someday discover memories of that time in Vienna imbedded in the sediment of images and textures that have accumulated. Looking back, the gesticulation of fingers will be inextricably fused to the swaying of a roomful of dancers. The sound of a breathing machine will become indistinguishable from the noise of an early morning marketplace.
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What Anne and Johann have spent their Museum Hours discovering and what they’ve shared with us is how the senses discern what the heart will remember, and their discoveries are a joy to behold. Life, like art, never reveals itself all at once. Icarus’s fall from the sky in a painting or a young woman’s pre-nuptial walk through town are mere threads in a fabulous tapestry that can be visited and re-visited without relinquishing its fascination. There will always be more there than meets the eye.

Museum Hours Trailer

A Woman of Valor

The cast of Tribes. From left, around the table: Mare Winninham (standing), Jeff Perry, Will Brill, Russell Harvard, Gayle Rankin (back to camera) and Susan Pourfar

After a performance of Nina Raine’s Tribes, directed by David Cromer (now playing at the Barrow Street Theater), the other night, I was in the lobby as a group of mostly women made a very big deal over Russell Harvard, the actor who played Billy.  He was great, don’t get me wrong.  But he wasn’t by any means the best in show.  That title belongs to Mare Winningham, playing his mother, a smolderingly constipated housewife eclipsed by the various shadows her family members cast.

Mare Winningham as Beth

It’s hard to play the kind of obstructed creativity that this mother is about to burst from, but Winningham embodies it.  There is no overt anger, no rage in her demeanor, just a seemingly congenial family person who seems to have everything she could want.  But in her eyes as she watches her family unravel in front of her, in her voice as she argues about the words in her detective novel or the decision to have company visit, in her tiny flitting fingers that are incapable of stillness, the combustion seems imminent.

Winningham’s Beth resonates for women of her generation (although Beth is a full decade older than the actress, which, by the way, seems like a very brave choice for an actor who competes with women who would kill to be able to play 50 again, and there’s no real going back).  Her husband Christopher (Jeff Perry), retired from active work, spends his days pontificating or studying.  Satisfied to lounge around while his faithful mate does the chores and keeps the family engine running, he is all too quick to upbraid his children, to demean his wife, to spout pronouncements of superiority wherever he can.  He is neither a good man nor a bad one, but his rages are dangerous, caustic, razing the stanchions of his wife’s and offspring’s self-esteem.

Director David Cromer

These are people who have lost the art of hearing.  They are, as Director David Cromer said in an interview, “All funny, smart, loving good people who still screw everything up.”  Billy, the youngest child, is deaf, but his disability is only partly the result of his lack of physically hearing, and the others are the ones who are most handicapped.  Deafness, insists Billy’s girlfriend Ruth (Gayle Rankin), herself in the process of losing her hearing, is a handicap, despite what political correctness would have us believe, and every member of this family is profoundly deaf.  Every member except Beth perhaps.

Daniel’s (Will Brill) ability to hear is failing as the voices in his head increasingly drown out those of his sister, brother and parents; he is a failing academic floundering for ballast.  Sylvia (Susan Pourfar), the sister, an aspiring opera star, can only hear what pertains to herself, what negates or supports her growing self-doubt.  Christopher hears only what he wants to hear, and he is so enamored of his own voice, that that is what he prefers to listen to most of the time.  For Beth, the crux of her life has been engaging with these bright, complex people, and it is suddenly clear to her that engagement was perhaps superficial, that none of them has ever really let the others in.

Beth is trapped in a whirlpool, and her great sense of humor, her ability to compartmentalize aspects of their life, her resilience are fraying all at once.  Suddenly the great achievement of her young adulthood, her crowning accomplishment — that Billy need not sign because he is so adept at lip reading and making sense of spoken language in English and in French — has been rejected.  Billy wants to be more deaf, to sign and to eschew the hearing world.  Daniel and Sylvia, who resent Billy as much as they love him — and Daniel needs him — cannot seem to find their own source of sustenance.  They look to Beth to save them, but she, now suddenly groping for a buoy of her own, has nothing left to offer.

Christopher (Jeff Perry) looks on while Daniel (Russell Harvard) explains his feeling of isolation

In each moment, Winningham’s small frame bends a bit more, walks a little less deliberately, seems a bit more fragile.  It’s subtle, but it’s there. She has nurtured this brood, this childishly demanding spouse and their eclectic offspring, and she is swirling in what feels like failure.  The only one who has any strength at all is Billy, and he has found himself by rejecting her gift.  The rest of them are stuck, mired in their choler, their resentments for things they feel they should have had but never did.   The cacophony of their self-pity inures them to all but the whirr of their encroaching panic.

Beth needs silence so that she can find the true sound of her own voice, but as anyone who knows deafness will tell you, there is no silence in the land of the deaf.  There is persistent, inescapable noise that shatters all peace.  And Beth’s notes are left muffled by the growing din.

But truly giving and never resentful, Winningham infuses a last burst energy at the end of the play, just after the lights come up for the curtain call.  Still in character, Winninham, nearly drained by what has transpired,  wraps herself around Daniel, whose last moment has emotionally destroyed both the actor and his alter self, and she holds him for a moment while he recharges himself with her love.

Now playing at the
27 Barrow Street, NY, NY 10014
Box Office 212-868-4444

Playwright Nina Raine